This interview with the patrol policewoman Zoya Melnyk well-known in Odesa was recorded by a phone a few hours before she posted her resonant post on Facebook. I wanted to talk to Zoya about the protection of children’s rights, but the story turned out to be first of all about the failure of police reform, which has lasted for almost five years. The indicators – protocols and fines plans – and “business cards” (bribes) seem to have outweighed the value of life and health of citizens, and the police are not in a hurry when they are called. Sometimes it takes the patrol three or four hours to arrive. Those who don’t pursue parameters and show disagreement publicly, end up with intolerable working conditions. The particularly obstinate ones, such as Zoya Melnyk, who keep fighting, are provoked and threatened with “close attention” to their families.
The response to the post of the patrol policewoman was quick-fire. The head of the patrol police department Yevhen Zhukov (call sign “Marshal”) posted his own interpretation of the story on his Facebook page – a comparative “timing” table of the official activities of four police officers (one of them is Zoya Melnyk) for the first half of 2019 – and stated, “The employee will be dismissed for systematic violations of official discipline, and that’s final”. According to the table, Melnyk is a truant and a negligent worker. At the same time, it is surprising how she managed to get appreciation from the interior minister “for the conscientious attitude to the performance of duties, initiative and perseverance”.
Anyway, attention is drawn to other indicators in the table – 424 administrative protocols in 69 shifts of Andrii Delihioza. Zoya Melnyk told Opinion how it is possible to achieve such indicators before the dirty campaign for her discreditation began to unfold.
What made you go to the police?
I’ve always been attracted to this profession. It is romance, you might say. But the police didn’t have normal provisions, and everyone knew that they take bribes because otherwise, they will not survive. I didn’t want to take bribes. When they promised that there will be normal providing, that there will be reforms, I decided to try: if it isn’t as they promised, I will leave. And then I got caught up in it.
And are there reforms? Are they successful?
No. Everything turned out to be a fraud. If in 2015-2016, when with sparkling eyes we came to change something and to bring an order, anyone had told me that it will be as it was then, I simply wouldn’t have believed it and would have laughed. Then we discussed the probability of the return of the old scheme of traffic police, and my acquaintances, the former police officers, said, “Everything will return soon. You’ll see”. I replied that it was impossible. If someone comes and says that we will bring money now, we will simply destroy this person. But, alas, they started to create intolerable conditions of work for the honest people who served adequately. Some were forced to leave. Some saw the injustice and resigned. Unfortunately, all bad things started to return very actively.
What do you encounter personally?
Now, it’s threats in my address. We’re probably being bugged right now.
When we first started working, we had no plans. As our reformers said, the main criteria for the success of the police are the trust of society. Everything was built on this. Most of us were young. Due to the lack of experience, we were wrong, but we came whenever we were called, we helped people, we tried to restore order in the city. Of course, there were different people. But even former employees that came back, didn’t take bribes and worked quite well at first.
This is the way it happened before. We changed shifts at seven in the morning. Everyone knew that at this time a number of calls accumulated. We tried to work them out as quickly as possible so that there were more free crews, and if something serious happened, we were able to respond quickly. When all calls were worked out, then we could stop the cars that violated traffic rules. That is, the calls were the priority. We had about 10 cars for a fairly large area (about 10 thousand people), and each of them got more than 10 calls, and in the summer – up to 20. Sometimes even these cars were not enough for a 12-hour shift.
Over time, we were separated. Some patrols began to work only on the road, and there were more and more of them. They began to set plans for how many fines it was necessary to issue. Of course, it is easier to fine people on the road – it is easier to identify the driver than just a passer-by or a street bully. And everyone started working on the road to execute the plan. However, the huge amount of work which you could not tick has not gone away. For example, the withdrawal of children.
I came on a call to the apartment, where there were three little boys – one and a half, two and four years. There was a woman with them. Their mother was absent. The house was a real hangout: stench, dirt, alcohol and drug addicts. There was a puddle of blood on the floor. A drunk man tried to commit suicide there that morning. Older children ran around barefoot. A year-and-a-half old boy lay on the mattress, on the floor fenced off by the kitchen board – he was dehydrated and exhausted. One of the children had a rotten wound on his leg. The only food was sour pasta. No clothes, no toys. Mowgli children, dirty and urined… Shock. It was clear that these children needed to be withdrawn.
I spent more than two hours on it. The withdrawal of children is carried out by the staff of juvenile prevention in collaboration with health professionals and services for children. When the “juvenile” arrived, there was a bunch of suspicious people in the apartment. How could I leave him with them? And how would he have delivered the children? I decided to help. We called the volunteers who helped to dress the children. All this time the commanders were constantly calling me and demanded that I left everything and came back immediately; they said that I am not doing my own work and that I should have only called the “juvenile”. However, it would have been wrong to leave him alone. In addition, any department should protect citizens, including children.
As a result, they just took away the official car I was using. Although I explained the situation to the battalion commander, they made foot patrol or work on the base – to raise/lower the barrier. It was very insulting because I’m not the worst employee – I am trained, I can provide medical care, I came to all the calls, I had no troubles. I even fulfilled the infamous indicators, although I didn’t pursue them.
Unfortunately, it was getting more and more ridiculous – the combats started to compete who would have better indicators. This led to the materials being issued with a large number of violations and then challenged in courts. All the police fight smoking, but few pay the issued fines. It’s inefficient, empty paperwork for a dumpster.
The priority should be people’s health and life, but in fact, it has come to absurd: earlier we didn’t have time to work out the calls in the area with 10 cars, but since 2018 only one or two cars work with them. And they also need to fulfil the plan. And it is not always possible to process it. The withdrawal of a child, for example, doesn’t add up to the indicators. Though Avakov promised that there would be no indicators, and the whole world departed from it – they demand them from us.
Very often it happened this way: there are plenty of calls in the area, some “hang” for two-four hours, and at this time the police stand near signs, sometimes even several crews because the commander told that he would not let them go home until they bring a fine for the article 130 (driving while intoxicated by alcohol – auth.). Of course, when indicators are required in this way, it might happen in any way. A result is a large number of protocols and complaints.
I went live on “1+1” and told about what was happening in the police and how the reform was actually carried out. After that, the authorities invited me to negotiate. I refused. The next day unknown numbers started to call me with threats. The person who called said that I stuck my nose in other people’s business, that I upset “certain people” and if I continue, it might affect my parents and my child. Therefore, I was highly recommended to calm down. I keep records of those conversations.
They called at night to make it impossible to get directions. They are literate people, they know what they are doing. My first reaction was fear. Then I thought and calmed down: there was nothing that serious to threaten my child. I wrote something else again, and they called again. I wrote about the police and children. I asked the caller, “Is it because of the children?” The answer was no. That’s how I knew exactly who was threatening me.
Zoya, isn’t it easier to give up?
I’m not used to giving up. I will betray myself and will not be able to live with it if I leave everything as it is. I will continue to write about it openly. My protection is publicity. So, they’re not interested in anything happening to me.
How did the group “Protection of children’s rights” appear on Facebook?
Back in 2012, I was astonished by the case when a nine-month-old child was thrown out of the window in my district. My daughter was the same age. I started looking into the details. You know, when a mother kills a newborn due to postpartum depression – that’s one thing. But when the nine-month-old girl who can’t walk, speak, can’t ask for protection, already has two craniocerebral injuries… I was very much impressed. The neighbours saw the drunken mother drop the child on asphalt, but no one could even be bothered to take it away. I started reading the terrible statistics – and realized that this is a big problem.
When I went to the police, I found out I didn’t know anything about it before. We have a lot of discrimination against children. We might say, discrimination based on age. It would seem that under the constitution all citizens are equal. But children are powerless. Especially orphans. It doesn’t matter in what condition the adult is and to what extent he is guilty – if he is beaten on the street, someone will definitely call the police. But if an adult hits a child on the street, no one will call the police. In four years, I can count the number of calls about child abuse with my fingers. Because it is acceptable, it is not our business, the child is the property of parents.
I started writing about it. It’s good that there’s Facebook now, where you can find people who think like you. Gradually, there were people around me who were associated with the topic or thought about these problems. I met an employee of juvenile crime prevention in Odesa oblast Dmytro Revun, who proved to be a very competent and experienced specialist. We started working together, I learned a lot from him. It was our common idea to create a group “Protection of children’s rights”.
I concluded that we need a Western-style system – juvenile justice, with juvenile courts, prosecutors and the like. We need experts in narrow fields who know how to investigate cases on the protection of children and their rights. We write and draw attention to the problem. The group’s goal is to share information and join forces. We have psychologists and volunteers led by my friend Katia Nozhevnikova who very often help us in difficult situations.
You often criticize child services in your posts. For what?
For inaction, covering-ups lies. For pretending that nothing is happening. I am constantly giving examples.
The laws on domestic violence and bullying don’t work for children’s centres such as CSPRC, because they were not included in the law by the mistake of legislators.
When I see some domestic tragedy, I always think about how it could have been prevented, at what stage. And very often it turns out that the tragedy was preceded by calls, messages, but for some reason, no one paid attention to it. Now two employees are brought to trial for not reacting in any way to numerous addresses of the grandmother about the beating of a four-year-old child, the mother of which eventually killed it. In developed countries, no one expects or risks the life and health of a child. Here no one pays attention until the consequences are irreversible.
The experts in the field of the protection of children’s rights believe that sometimes you interpret the laws in your own way. Do you remember the story of the murder of a five-year-old girl by her father after she was returned to the biological family with the help of activists?
From a moral point of view, it is wrong to achieve the return of a child to the family and not to visit it to find out what is happening. But from the point of view of the law, only the police and services have responsibilities in this regard.
There are no innocents in this story. However, after the Revolution of Dignity, activism is a very common phenomenon. Unfortunately, sometimes people don’t feel the limits of their competence, and instead of benefitting they harm. How competent do you feel? Do you consult the experts on controversial issues?
Before I express my opinion, I read, look for the relevant laws and regulations, try to understand. Activism is indeed sometimes for good and sometimes for harm. Depends on what people are aiming for. I understand those who are driven by the desire to achieve justice very well. My goal is to create favourable conditions for the development and mental health of society so that my children have someone to communicate with. And sometimes the only tool for reaching out is publicity.
Some people are driven by hatred. To the police, to some service, to any power. And whatever changes, for them it will always be bad.
There are people for whom activism is a way of life. And there are those who do it for money. Indeed, the word “activist” is somewhat discredited. But I wouldn’t generalize, because we’re all different. And there are people in the police or child services who would sacrifice the last thing and make sure to help. And there are those who would try to make money on someone else’s trouble.
What are the limits of your competence at the moment?
I won’t talk about what I don’t know. I don’t talk about the law-making process of the laws I didn’t work with. Although there are a lot of laws that sometimes contradict each other. To talk about something confidently – it needs to be studied for years.
So, you’re a practitioner?
Yes. I have a law degree. However, this doesn’t mean that I can talk about the appropriateness or inexpediency of any law. It is necessary to delve and understand every sentence, every comma.
You are obviously an ambitious person. What are your ambitions?
I don’t even know (laughs – ED.). To change the world? To change the juvenile justice in Ukraine – I would like to achieve this. Whether it is possible is another matter.
Interviewed by Hanna Drozd
Photo by Maryna Bandeliuk